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Rockstar prepares the second of GTA IV's Xbox 360 exclusive episodes...
If there was one possible flaw in Grand Theft Auto IV - and it's a minor quibble at that - it's that in streamlining the gameplay to allow Liberty City to take centre stage, the series lost some of the variety and quirkiness that made its predecessor so great - the missions themselves lacked the sheer outlandishness and variety that San Andreas championed. However, as Rockstar presumably brings our time in Liberty City to a close with its final DLC [ed. Is this really the end?], The Ballad of Gay Tony, it's clear they intend to go out with a bang.
Tinted with pink lights and neon signs, Liberty City has taken on a more flamboyant persona this time around. By comparison to the darker shading of The Lost and Damned, these small touches have a very noticeable effect. Other than that, apart from some new building interiors and vehicles, Liberty City remains largely the same.
After a brief demonstration, I was let loose on Liberty City with some of the new weapons. New guns include an assault rifle based on a P90, an improved sniper rifle and a magnum. All of these pack a considerable punch and are clearly intended to help you create even more mayhem this time around. However, we particularly enjoyed the continuation of The Lost and Damned's shotgun related antics with TBOGT's semi-automatic shotgun, which is rather worryingly based on a real AA-12 shotgun. It's fairly similar to the rapid-fire shotguns in previous GTAs, only it's twice as loud and five times more effective.
After patiently sitting through a rather hapless spree with the shotgun while I re-familiarised myself with the controls, the Rockstar rep sat next to me and chuckled: "hey, want me to put on the explosive rounds?" Loaded with these rounds, the shotgun pulverised everything. Stood in the middle of the road, I tested it out on an approaching taxi. The first shot stopped the car dead in its tracks and crumpled the bonnet, seemingly pinning it to the ground. The force of the second shot tossed the car backwards and the third set it alight. I then did what any person playing GTA would do, and spent the next ten minutes shredding my way through Liberty City.
Once the Rockstar rep could tear me away from my spree (I really can't stress enough how fun the new weapons are), it was time for some missions. In TBOGT our hero is Luis Lopez, right hand man to Gay Tony. Tony is the patriarch of Liberty City's nightlife, running most of its clubs and bars. As he has made more money, men like Bulgarin (Niko's enemy from GTA IV) are after a piece of the action. With Lopez acting as Tony's bodyguard-cum-business partner, it's your duty to keep Tony and his business safe, while simultaneously looking out for yourself.
The first mission, 'For The Man Who Has Everything', introduced us to Yusef, a previously mentioned Iranian property developer brilliantly voiced by Omid Djalili, who promises to solve all of Luis and Tony's problems in return for a few favours. Yusef has his eye on a Liberty City subway carriage and after some hilarious dialogue, which in the interest of keeping this site PG-13 we can't repeat, asks Luis to get him one. Your task is to run along the top of a moving subway train and disconnect the front carriage so that Yusef can heli-lift it away. The Liberty City Police Department understandably view this as an act of terrorism, and throw every helicopter they've got at Luis. Thankfully, Yusef had given us the automatic shotgun at the start, turning the choppers into nothing more than cannon fodder. The mission is outrageously fun, and while it's no way near as challenging as some of the relentless firefights of The Lost and Damned, it definitely makes for a very welcome change of pace.
The second mission we played had Luis working for Bulgarin, and introduced us to another new toy: sticky grenades. Bulgarin had discovered that some crooked cops were planning to plant some evidence on one of his cars. In return, he planned to rig the car with a bomb and wipe out the men responsible. The sticky grenades can be placed on anything (though we didn't manage to get one on a person) and are remotely detonated, so before the cops arrived it seemed only diligent to decorate the car park with a ton of them. Hiding behind another car, we set them off at the right cue, sending fiery car husks flying across the car park. The firefight that followed then became much more dynamic as fuel tanks exploded all around us. 'Stickies' can also be dropped out of a car, which adds a whole new layer of explosive goodness to missions where Luis is being chased.
The other missions we tried all managed to sustain a healthy amount of variety. One involved stealing an army chopper from a yacht, and another had Luis using the new parachute to escape a skyscraper and land onto a moving truck. Best of all, Rockstar has finally made completed missions replayable via the game menu. Every performance in a mission is rated so, for instance, just missing landing on the moving truck will still complete the mission but you won't get a perfect score. This will add a huge replay factor that will greatly extend the longevity of this DLC but, unfortunately, at the time Rockstar couldn't tell us if this replay option would work in GTA IV or The Lost and Damned.
With the addition of the parachute there are now also base jumping missions dotted around Liberty City. These require Luis to jump from one of the many skyscrapers onto a specific target or through specific areas, giving the most dedicated fans a few extra hours of gameplay. In total, TBOGT is set to be as long as the Lost and Damned with the same number of missions, but with these two new additions we're sure we'll be playing it for far longer.
As a final thought, here is TVG's handy print-out-and-keep guide that should answer all of your questions about the various ways of getting hold of The Ballad of Gay Tony. The downloadable content is set for exclusive release on Xbox 360 as DLC content via Xbox Live for 1600 Microsoft Points (£13.60) - that's on October 29th. Additionally, Rockstar is releasing Episodes From Liberty City at retail (also on October 29th), which will have both The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned together on a disc for £34.99. This will act as a stand-alone game and can be played without owning GTA IV.
TBOGT is definitely shaping up to be the perfect way to say au revoir to Liberty City [ed. Could there still be more episodes planned? Your thoughts in the comments...]. There's definitely a tinge of sadness though, as what we've seen of this DLC certainly suggests that GTA IV is really coming into its own.